This is basically the philosophy that’s leading me to start a project I will be some time completing–writing an in-depth review of all 90 (yes, 90) mainstream novels that Donald Westlake wrote under his own name, as well as the names Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Sam Holt, Curt Clark, and a few other handles to boot. The ‘porn’ novels he wrote (porn in the late 50’s, maybe) under a variety of names are worth looking at for some early clues as to where Westlake was heading as a writer, but I don’t promise to review all of them–for one thing, nobody, possibly not even Westlake himself, has ever been able to determine how many he wrote, just to pay the bills before he got established as one of the greatest novelists in the history of crime/detective/noir fiction. I personally consider him THE greatest, but then I would, wouldn’t I?
He also wrote short stories, and ruefully admitted that was never his form. But I’ll review most of the story collections out there. Just to be thorough. Plus a few odds and ends. And whatever else seems relevant–I expect to be writing a fair few articles that are more examinations of some aspect or other of Westlake’s writing–you’ll know them when you see a title along the lines of “Mr. Westlake and ——“. I might review the work of other authors, simply because I feel it casts some light on Westlake. There are no rules.
There are already several excellent sites out there that review most of his output–but briefly. This isn’t a bibliography–this is an exploration. Because Donald Westlake, to my way of thinking, is more than just a great crime fiction author–he’s one of the best American authors of the 20th century that doesn’t get taken seriously, though there is great affection for him out there in critic-land. Partly because he wrote ‘genre’, partly because so much of his writing was to some extent humorous in nature (though it could get pretty dark at times), and probably most of all because he never wrote a best-selling novel. Or won a Pulitzer (an Edgar just doesn’t have the same ring to it, somehow). Or moved in the right circles. He was nearly always well-reviewed, other writers were crazy about him, he had any number of influential fans, but somehow he never got bumped up to the first tier in American fiction, composed of those writers the critical establishment loves to find underlying themes in–Westlake never seemed to care about that.
That doesn’t mean there is no underlying theme to his work, though. It’s definitely there, and all the more effective for being so well-camouflaged under all the heists and murders and comic capering. Westlake once said “I think my subject is bewilderment–but I could be wrong.” Or he could be obfuscating to beat the band–he knew damned well he had a subject. His subject was identity.
Granted, not such a startling revelation–most, if not all fiction is about identity to some extent or other–but not usually to the same extent or in the same manner it was in Westlake. And he developed that idea with great consistency and exceptional insight, over the course of a remarkably prolific and eclectic writing career that lasted well over half a century. It’s his unifying principle, his leitmotif, the thing that binds all his work together into a satisfying whole.
Even in his pseudonyms–the best of which each had a distinct style and point of view–he was exploring the mutability of self. His third wife wrote an article claiming he would become a very different man while writing under a different name–that each nom de plume came with its own pseudonymous personality, with distinct behavioral tics. Westlake wrote an article in which he and several of his alternative selves are interviewed, and it somehow ends violently–his way of saying he didn’t always get on with himself very well.
We are, to a great extent, who we choose to be, Westlake tells us–but those choices come with consequences, are limited by the nature we were born with, and will require genuine self-knowledge to mean anything, or lead to any good result. Crisis leads to self-examination. Self-examination then leads to crisis. There is inherent danger to examining yourself too closely–you may not like what you find. But there is greater danger in not knowing who you are, what you are capable of, how far you would go to reach a specific goal. Westlake is out to warn us about all of that, and in an era where so many people are ‘reinventing’ themselves, that makes him more relevant than ever.
He’s always writing about people who are in the process of finding themselves, losing themselves, or struggling against all odds to remain themselves. Again, any writer of fiction deals with identity in his or her work–but I’ve never encountered any other writer so keenly and implacably aware of this, so determined to bring that theme into ever-clearer focus–without ever quite coming out and saying that’s what he’s doing, because that would be like the magician saying “It’s just a trick.” And he’s doing all this, let’s remember, while writing pretty much entirely ‘commercial’ fiction (looking at his book sales, Westlake must have grinned wryly about that sometimes).
Most of his books are written to entertain, to amuse, to thrill–and they do–but why have they held up so well, so long, once we’ve gasped at all the twists, laughed at all the gags, seen every character’s journey to its end? Because they’re exceptionally well-written, sure–but also because there’s this binding thread between them–we identify with his characters, good and bad, because they, like us, are struggling to become something. Or, in a few cases, because they embody for us a wholeness and perfection of being we aspire to, but only achieve in our fantasies. Westlake wrote 24 novels about Parker–his three other most famous protagonists get 23 novels between them. Why is that? Tell you later.
Navigating my way through his life’s work a book at a time, I learned to recognize certain patterns that recur again and again–but what I never did manage to do was reliably predict where he’d go with a story, a protagonist. So much of the time he defeats your expectations, catches you offguard when you thought you had him figured, and that’s why I am now out of Donald Westlake novels to read–having read my first Parker novel two and a half years ago. It wasn’t even one of the better ones–Flashfire (now a horrible flop movie starring Jason Statham–Mr. Westlake’s financially necessary but deeply troubled relationship with Hollywood that has sadly outlived him is another thing I want to discuss).
Reading Flashfire, I thought “Well, this is interesting, I guess–let me try another.” And then another. And another. And then suddenly I was out of Richard Stark novels to read. So I moved on to Tucker Coe–only five of those. Mitch Tobin may, in fact, be Westlake’s most interesting character, but Westlake ran out of things to say with him pretty fast–he was yet another identity puzzle, but this one got solved, so adios to Mitch.
And then I had no choice but to read the stuff Westlake wrote under his own name–I was looking at the full list of his novels on Wikipedia, and thinking “I can’t read all that.” Well, guess what? I read all that. Excepting the porn–just recently read a few of those, and found them interesting (not just for the obvious reasons), but I can see why Westlake wanted to forget them. And also why he never completely did. But I’m not leading with that. Or his early efforts in the science fiction genre. Westlake’s relationship with science fiction was complicated–leading to his publicly renouncing the genre–but like so many of his early loves, he never did quite get it out of his system.
I’ll start, predictably, with The Mercenaries (aka The Cutie). His first novel in the crime genre. Because that’s where we get our first glimpse of the mature writer–or rather, of the writer who has finally begun to define himself, find his true niche, and figure out what he can do. And what he can’t. And when you’re talking Donald Westlake, the latter category is a lot smaller than you’d think.
So anyway, let’s see what I can do to cast a little light on this enigma–a writer many reasonably literate (and not-so-literate) people have heard of, maybe even read–but they usually only know one aspect of him. He’s like the elephant, and we’re the blind men groping around and making diametrically opposed conclusions. The pieces don’t seem to fit–and yet, once you start putting them together, the nature of the beast begins to emerge.
And in writing these reviews–which I warn you right now will be spoiler-laden, so read the book first or don’t come complaining to me–I’ll try not to whine too much about the fact that his writing career began in earnest about the same time I was born–and I only started reading his stuff a few years after he’d shuffled off this mortal coil. So when I’m guessing at his motives, his worldview, his tastes, even his politics–that’s just me guessing. I envy the hell out of those who actually got to question him about his work, and I will always wonder how he would have responded to my queries. Mr. Westlake, if you are out there in the spirit world, I’m quite ready to be haunted.
I flatter myself I can make do without any help from a medium–when somebody writes that much fiction, you can make some pretty well-educated guesses. You put the question to him in a different way, and the answers may be more truthful than anything you’d have gotten out of the living author. Isaiah Berlin wrote, regarding Benjamin Disraeli, that a man may prevaricate endlessly about his nature in public and private life, but once he sets his hand to fiction, he tells the truth about himself. Westlake didn’t really like talking about himself much–his interviews are a bit evasive, though often indirectly revealing. There is no published biography of him at present, and our knowledge of his private life is sketchy at best–he doubtless preferred it that way. But he left us all the clues we need to solve this mystery. Time to do the legwork. Or if you prefer, pull the heist.
This blog is never going to have a lot of bells and whistles to it. I’m not going to post a ton of images, not going to spend much time talking about rare editions of this or that book, and that’s not because I don’t like that kind of thing–it’s because I hate replication of effort. You can head over to The Violent World of Parker, Existential Ennui, and other far more creative blogs, crammed with fascinating informative content–I will frequently refer my readers (if any) to articles there. I’m only doing this in-depth review project because I don’t see anyone else doing it. I’d love to hear what you think as I go along, but as I feel sure Westlake would agree, the audience you should be most interested in pleasing is yourself. Even if that means you never write a best-seller in your life. There are compensations to that–Westlake’s reputation has already outlived more than a few best-selling contemporaries . More and more of his books are being made available once more. His cult, small though it be, endures, and grows, one reader at a time. Here’s hoping I can add to that. He once remarked that the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. Vivat Rex.